More than philanthropy

Hampton Roads Community Foundation tackles economic issues

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“We want to play a role in resolving these larger issues
confronting the region,” says Deborah DiCroce. Photo by Mark Rhodes

Messy and mucky are not the typical labels ascribed to the Hampton Roads Community Foundation’s philanthropic work, but those are the adjectives its president and CEO uses when discussing the organization’s new focus, tackling regional economic competitiveness.

Considering the at-times divisive competition among Hampton Roads’ various economic, political and civic entities, those words may offer the clearest depiction of the foundation’s  latest efforts to improve life in the region.

“It’s a rather messy, mucky business,” says Deborah DiCroce.  “It’s obviously a very large, complex matter. Nor is there a quick fix that brings a resolution.” A challenge, yes, but one that DiCroce relishes for her “second act in doing good for the region I call home.” The Hampton Roads native took charge of the foundation in 2012 after serving as president of Tidewater Community College for 14 years. 

With its philanthropic roots stretching back more than 60 years, the Hampton Roads Community Foundation (HRCF) has awarded more than $164 million in grants and scholarships to improve the lives of the region’s residents.

Focusing on education, human services and the arts, the foundation helped form and later expand Eastern Virginia Medical School, Virginia Wesleyan College and the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center.

‘We make a difference’
The second-largest of the state’s 27 community foundations and the 47th largest in the nation, HRCF’s latest incarnation came in 2010 with the merger of the Norfolk and Virginia Beach community foundations. With an asset value of about $300 million, the HRCF’s recent endeavors include helping to launch the region’s early childhood education initiative, Smart Beginnings, and joining forces with Norfolk and Virginia Beach to address homelessness. 

“In Hampton Roads, we make a difference,” DiCroce notes. “By any measure, we’re big. You couldn’t find a project of great import to the region that somewhere doesn’t have our finger on it.”  That’s one reason why the foundation has opted to delve into Hampton Roads’ longstanding efforts to shore up its economic competitiveness. “It’s the kind of issue some of the more progressive community foundations across the country are beginning to tackle,” she adds. “We want to play a role in resolving these larger issues confronting the region.”

But she quickly points out that the foundation will not be driving the discussions. “Our role is one that convenes, incentivizes, facilitates.”

That role includes launching the Hampton Roads Regional Council with representatives from economic development entities such as the Hampton Roads and Virginia Peninsula chambers of commerce, the Hampton Roads Economic Development Alliance and the Future of Hampton Roads, a nonpartisan research group that promotes regional development.

The group’s objective?  Form strategic alliances to develop strategies for enhancing regional competitiveness beyond the historical economic drivers of the port, the military and tourism. “The common thread,” says DiCroce, “is collaborate, collaborate, collaborate. The way you compete today to be successful is to join forces to a greater goal.”

It’s a goal Bryan Stephens enthusiastically supports. Having previously lived in Hampton Roads while serving in the military, Stephens returned to the area late last year when he was named president and CEO of the Hampton Roads Chamber of Commerce. Now he represents the chamber on the regional council. “We just want to partner and contribute,” he says of the HRCF’s objective. “This region has so much potential as far as economic prosperity. A lot of organizations within the region are doing a great job, but there is not one single organization to pull all those efforts together to facilitate coordination and collaboration.”

He adds that the council will determine the region’s pressing issues and priorities, including how to ensure that its three traditional economic drivers remain healthy.

While the military, the port and tourism have cushioned Hampton Roads during economic downturns, DiCroce says it’s time for the region to develop new aspirations. “It’s a clarion call that says let’s go for some power and look to other areas that have the potential to enhance the economic competitiveness of the region.”

Stephens, previously the president and CEO of a manufacturing company in San Antonio, thinks Hampton Roads could diversify its economy by bringing into the mix more companies involved in manufacturing, technology and pharmaceuticals. “The area is absolutely fertile for economic prosperity,” he says. “The potential is phenomenal. I can’t think of another region in the nation that has the potential we have.”

That potential attracted 100 Hampton Roads business and civic leaders to join the community foundation’s study groups looking at the region’s initiatives in entrepreneurialship, industry, workforce development and civic leadership. The foundation has asked the groups to complete their work and offer recommendations by the end of the summer. “This is a marathon, not a sprint. We think we’ve got the right questions at this stage,” DiCroce says, “We want to continue with that focus of looking at the right thing.”

Despite expanding its focus to regional economic competitiveness, the foundation is not relinquishing its philanthropic role in awarding scholarships, supporting nonprofit agencies and attracting new audiences to arts organizations. “We’re building on the Hampton Roads Community Foundation’s foundation, not abandoning its roots,” DiCroce says.

CEO roundtable
The HRCF embraced its expanded focus by commissioning Austin, Texas-based consulting firm Greyhill Advisors to examine the effectiveness of the region’s “business-voice” entities, including the Hampton Roads and Virginia Peninsula chambers of commerce, the Hampton Roads Economic Development Alliance, the Future of Hampton Roads, the Hampton Roads Military and Federal Facilities Alliance and the Hampton Roads Partnership, many of whom shared the same purpose. Begun in September 2012, the $120,000, year-and-a-half-long study also compared Hampton Roads to areas like Austin, Pittsburgh, Jacksonville, Fla., and Charlotte, N.C. The consultants ultimately determined that Hampton Roads’ biggest obstacles are its lack of coordination and cohesiveness.  Regions that get things done, they note, are those employing a roundtable group composed of local CEOs.

Confirmation, says Vincent Mastracco, of the informal work already being undertaken by more than two dozen of the region’s top business executives to foster regional economic development and support business-friendly legislation. The group evolved from the Hampton Roads Partnership, which dissolved last year. “The partnership was a good idea initially,” says Mastracco, who served as its legal counsel. “But it became a little unworkable because the politics of each city and county varied and paralyzed the partnership from taking a position. Corporate paralysis set in, and its usefulness was limited.” 

Mastracco, an attorney with the law firm Kaufman and Canoles who also serves on the HRCF’s board of directors, believes that the Hampton Roads Business Roundtable can overcome political roadblocks. “We’re really looking at more institutional support rather than political support.” The 29-member group, which organized formally last year, remains nonpartisan, although it has hired lobbyists and formed a political action committee.  “Hopefully we will be effective because we will shoot for as close to unanimity as we can in advancing the benefits of the region.”

While complete harmony may not be possible, in the end, it’s all about collaboration, says DiCroce. As part of that collaborative effort, the community foundation will take a step back as the regional council gets off the ground. “We’re helping launch the council,” she notes. “At the end of the day, what happens to that council is up to that council. There’s huge potential, but it demands individual and collective accountability to collaborate and join forces on the big strategic priorities.”

And, if collaboration does not succeed at advancing Hampton Roads’ regional competitiveness? “We’ll regroup and try something else,” DiCroce says. “We’re encouraged, but the journey has just begun.”

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